Fantastic Fest ’13 Review: ‘Afflicted’ Is An Impressive But Flawed Feature Debut

By October 2, 2013

A technical marvel but narrative disappointment, Afflicted may be branded the next great found footage horror film, but don’t believe it. Featuring some extraordinarily ambitious sequences paired with lackluster acting and a story that unevenly explores its premise, Derek Lee and Clif Prowse’s feature debut will deservedly get them noticed as filmmakers on the rise. But even with a veritably airtight premise for keeping cameras rolling long after any regular idiot would turn them off, Afflicted is a step in the right direction for the burgeoning filmmaking style that still needs to figure out how to tell stories as inventive as its techniques, or at least find ways not to completely discombobulate viewers with the ones they’re telling now.

Lee and Prowse play “themselves,” a pair of longtime best friends who embark on a trip across the globe that’s meant to be a possible last hurrah for Lee, who suffers from a debilitating brain disease that is almost certainly fatal. Documenting every minute of the trip with cameras that they’re carrying, wearing, or are somehow mounted on various body parts, the duo arrives in Europe for a first night of celebration. But after Derek takes home a young woman named Audrey (Baya Rehaz) who seduces and attacks him, his condition begins to worsen, even as he develops strange superhuman abilities. As Derek simultaneously gets stronger and sicker, Clif grows increasingly worried about his friend’s well-being, until he starts to transform into something not quite human, forcing a confrontation that may not only determine Derek’s future, but Clif’s as well.

Prowse details the duo’s camera equipment early in the film, showing how they have GoPro devices that they strap to their chest, providing them with alternate angles, and as far as I could tell, they never violate their perspectives to give a moment more dramatic weight. This is probably the best and worst decision the film makes: while I’m always disappointed when filmmakers cheat a shot or sequence to show some movement of behavior we might not otherwise be able to see, Prowse and Lee adhere with a rigidity that eventually undermines the impact of some of their set pieces, including two foot chases and a massive fight with a French S.W.A.T. team. Although V/H/S 2 beat this film to the punch in strapping a camera to the “monster” instead of the victim, Lee and Prowse do that film one better, but they also reveal why that’s not always an effective technique – namely, you can’t see a lot of the really great, gory stuff that you want to.

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Moreover, someone absolutely has to create a GoPro or some other kind of portable camera that is steadier and smoother, because watching someone run from their point of view is about the most disorienting experience possible. While there’s no doubt that that shaky camerawork covers a number of cuts or other sins, at a certain point, the audience just wants to see what the hell is happening. And when a character develops the ability to jump superhuman distances, or scale walls effortlessly, there are better perspectives than that character’s from which to view that action. (Although admittedly, precisely how Prowse and Lee accomplished these shots is something of a marvel, which some DVD featurette had better explain.)

Storywise, the film leaves much to be desired. When the co-stars, friends, and fellow filmmakers are on screen with one another, there’s a real humanistic charge to the escalation of events, even if Prowse definitely says “are you okay?” about 500 too many times. But once the two of them are separated, large chunks of the film feature Lee monologuing to the camera, and he’s simply not convincing as an ailing superhero (of sorts) who is angry at the circumstances that led to his transformation. Also, the final hour of the 90-minute odyssey skips a lot of interesting, albeit admittedly less important adventures Lee goes through, such as stealing his way from one country to another without money or identification, instead belaboring his psychological plight or duplicating details about his experiences and relationships that are already firmly established.

While festival audiences have been eager to embrace a found-footage genre film that manages to use its cameras in a novel way and tell a relatively unique story, its considerable accomplishments don’t overshadow the frequent awkwardness of its storytelling or the flatness of its performances. That said, Lee and Prowse are filmmakers whose future work seems incredibly promising, and if they can pair their great techniques with an equally compelling story (or maybe just better actors), they will undoubtedly be forces to be reckoned with. In which case, Afflicted exudes more promise than actual greatness; rather than something that spreads like a disease, perhaps a better word for the film is infectious, because the film itself is not bad, but it really makes you want to see what they’ll do next.

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Todd Gilchrist is a film critic with more than ten years of experience working in Los Angeles. A member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, Todd has contributed to a wide variety of print and online outlets, including The Wall Street Journal, Variety, The Playlist, MTV Movies, and IGN.